At the end of last year, isobar agency, Whitespace, was asked to create something special to promote Scotland – while no one was allowed to travel. The “something” they created is remarkable, a tourism film shot in pitch darkness. The film was released on Christmas Eve and was re-promoted this month for Earth Hour. Its behind-the-scenes story, told by Whitspace creative director, Neil Walker, is as inspiring as the film itself. If the fear of “can’t” has ever stopped you from doing anything, let this story be your guide.
Creating anything during COVID restrictions has had its challenges. But to create content and commercials for the tourism industry has been even more problematic. How do you continue to inspire people to come to a country, when people could barely travel five miles, let alone cross continents?
We spent most of 2020 navigating that precarious tightrope between inspiring and inviting with various projects for Visit Scotland. However, when it came to winter, we wanted to release a film that would mix magic with beauty to create something that would be as poignant as it was a spectacle.
Scotland At Night would follow a mysterious ball of light that would look like the fabled Will-O’ the Wisp, the mythical Scottish light that would guide travellers to magical destinations.
The first of its kind, the film showed the majesty of some of Scotland’s best-known landmarks but in a way never seen before – in pitch darkness.
Using a specially adapted heavy-lift drone, we flew a custom-made, 12,000W spotlight in and around Scotland. (To give you an idea of the power of such a light, think football stadium spotlight, but anchored to large drone drifting through the air.) The results were dramatic, with luminance dancing, waning and slipping over, then off the landscape. Equally dramatic, were the shadows that would stretch and trail around any obstacle before enveloping the scene in blackness as our light drifted off – usually because the ten minutes of battery power was up and it was time to land and reset with a fresh set, charged and ready for another flight as the freezing temperatures gnawed at the crew in the death of night.
Watching the film, you’d be forgiven for not quite realising just how tricky capturing the footage was. The kit was as new to us as it was novel. We’d seen some amateur videos on the internet of people flying similar set ups around in the dark. But no one had been effectively commissioned by a client to go out and spend nine days capturing what needed to be breath-taking images.
Teaming with production company, Eyebolls, and drone specialist, Aerial Frontiers, we chose 14 different sites and landmarks that were spread out, right across Scotland’s mainland and Hebridean Isles. They were chosen for their shape and texture – their intrinsic aesthetic – which we knew would be key to creating contrast.
The hardest part was describing the ask to the various custodians and managers of the locations we wanted to film. Trying to explain to them we wanted to film their premises at night, in darkness, oh, and we’d need them to turn off any spotlights that usually would be left on at night too. Some places had never even turned the lights off before.
For those that allowed us entry, it was vital that we turned up in daylight hours to scout out the location. We’d roughly plan the flight paths and camera positions that would capture the best shots. But also, we needed to make plenty of notes about the environment. When we would return a few hours later, trees, cliffs and telephone wires would be rendered invisible.
Often the first shots to capture were the shots featuring the stunt drone, modified simply with a powerful bicycle light. These tiny, agile drones are flown using a headset that shows a view from the drone as it flies. Put one on during the day and your vision is limited to a VGA display that looks like television from the eighties. Put one on at night and your vision is a kaleidoscope of inky shadow and blackness. We’d use the last throws of dusk to at least give the pilot some hope of guiding it around the flightpath without crashing too many times, which inevitably happened. The take at the Kelpies (the largest equine sculptures in the world) was particularly exciting as once the tiny light was flown across the water (which of course we insisted was a must to get the best shot) it would be too difficult to navigate back around to the take-off point with so little light. And so, we agreed that once we called cut, the pilot was to accelerate and rocket high in order to try to “sling” the drone over the other side of the water to dry land. If he missed, the stunt drone had no stunt double…
Of course, he flew it perfectly and we got the shot of the light gliding mischievously past the unsuspecting canal boat owner as he moors for the night. It would have been easier to just add the small wisp of light in post. But we agreed early on that we’d try to capture everything in-camera. It was great figuring out how to choreograph a light using timing and walkie talkies. And the result is something that CGI just can’t give you. That depth, texture, mood and movement – it all comes from real kit, in the real world. Something that has inspired me to try to do more practical effects going forward for other jobs. It’s become too easy to mutter, “let’s move on, we can fix it in post,” or just be lazy and call in some VFX whiz kids. But for me, the beauty of this film is something only achieved through patience, craft and, to some extent, chance. No one knew on the first night if it was going to work. Would the light be powered up and made airborne, only for us to realise that Scotland’s landmarks would look pretty mediocre when spotlit by a flying aura? But as soon as it left the ground, as soon as the iconic monument dedicated to Braveheart, William Wallace, was flooded with light in the frosty dark of night, we knew this was going to be amazing, something special. And to be honest, for me and the crew as we beamed with delight at what we were seeing in the monitors, our feet didn’t touch the ground till we wrapped two weeks later.